What Do USDA Grades Of Meat And Poultry Mean?

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Who determines the quality or grade of the meat you buy? Is it the grocery store? Is it the processing plant? Is it the state government? And, how much do the various grades of meat affect the taste, tenderness and cost of your meat and poultry selection? These are important considerations, particularly in light of the rising cost of putting meat on the table each week.

While the method of cooking will affect the taste and texture of a meat dish, the grade is the first place to look for a quality meal.

What is the USDA grading process?

In 1926 the US government adopted standards for market classes and grades of beef and established a beef grading and stamping service by the Federal Government for all inspected plants.

The United States Department of Agriculture or USDA grading system is actually a voluntary system paid for by the beef industry. US Department of Agriculture inspectors assign a grade to each beef carcass during the processing to ensure uniform quality in the marketing of beef. Not every cow that rolls off the processing line is created equal and the prices reflect this reality.

Different grades of beef

Grades of beef are based on several factors such as marbling and the age of the animal.

  • Marbling is the flecks and streaks of white fat found distributed throughout the beef. Usually, more marbling equals more tender and favorable meat.

Therefore, higher-grade meats are higher-quality meats and come at a higher cost. Age of the animal can be an important part too. Beef is best in flavor and texture when the animal is 18 to 24 months old. Government grading favors younger animals.

  • There are eight distinct grades of beef recognized by the USDA. In order of descending quality they are: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.

Beef graded at least USDA Select and higher are likely to be acceptable quality for most consumers. Avoid the lower grades, which seldom mentioned by name in the supermarkets. Consider these meats 100% Utility Grade Beef! Un-labeled cuts of meat are usually commercial or utility grade. The lowest grades: Cutter and Canner, are used for unappetizing items such as canned meat and those curious and non-descript meat sticks found inside gas stations and convenience stores.


Three primary grades of beef

These are the most popular grades of beef found in grocery stores, warehouses and butcher shops:

  • USDA Prime beef: contains the greatest degree of marbling and is generally sold to fine restaurants and some selected meat markets. It tends to be significantly higher in price than other grades of beef because less than 3 percent of beef graded is Prime. Prime grade beef is the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Prime Rib is a USDA Prime rib roast and many better steak houses will serve only Prime cuts.
  • USDA Choice beef: less marbling than Prime, but is still very high quality. This is the most popular grade of beef found in grocery stores. It contains sufficient marbling for taste and tenderness, but will cost less than Prime. About 50 percent of beef graded each year earns a grade of Choice.
  • USDA Select beef: generally a lower priced grade of beef with less marbling than Choice. Select cuts of beef usually vary in tenderness and juiciness. Select has the least amount of marbling, which makes it leaner than, but not as tender, juicy and flavorful as Prime and Choice grades. About 33 percent of beef graded falls into this category.

Grades of veal

USDA inspectors grade Veal or Calf into the following: Prime, Choice, Good, Standard and Utility.

Prime and Choice grades are the juicier and more flavorful grades. Because of the young age of the animals, the meat will be a light grayish-pink to light pink, with a firm and velvety texture. The bones are small, soft and quite red.

Grades of lamb

There are five grades for lamb as well. Normally, only two grades are found in grocery stores: Prime and Choice. Lower grades of lamb and mutton, which is meat from older sheep, called Good, Utility and Cull, are seldom marked with the grade. Lamb is produced from animals less than a year old. Quality of lamb varies greatly according to the age of the animal. Be sure to buy lamb that has been USDA graded.

  • Prime: very high in tenderness, juiciness and flavor with marbling that enhances both flavor and juiciness.
  • Choice: slightly less marbling than Prime, but still of high quality. Most cuts of Prime and Choice grade lamb such as: chops, roasts, shoulder cuts and leg are tender.

Pork is graded differently

Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades. It is generally produced from younger animals that have been bred and fed to produce more uniformly tender meat. Visual appearance is an important factor in selecting the best fresh pork. Look for cuts with a relatively small amount of fat over the outside. The meat should be firm and grayish pink in color. A small amount of marbling will provide the best flavor and tenderness.

Grades of poultry

The United States Department of Agriculture grades poultry into three categories: Grade A, B, and C.

  • Grade A: the highest quality and the only grade that is likely to be found at the grocery store. It must be free from bruises, discolorations and feathers. Bone-in products will have no broken bones. Whole birds and parts with skin will have no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking. Grade A poultry will have a good covering of fat under the skin and be fully fleshed and meaty.
  • There are no existing grade standards for necks, wing tips, tails, giblets, or ground poultry.

  • Grades B and C: usually found in processed products where the poultry meat is cut up, chopped, or ground. When sold at retail, these items are not usually identified by grade.

Keep meat safe at home

Keep your family safe from food poisoning at home by always using proper meat handling techniques. Different meats will harbor different types of bacteria. Fully wash and sanitize cutting boards and counters between preparing different types of meat or protein in the kitchen. Preparing, packaging and storage of meat demands recommended and safe food-handling techniques in the kitchen. Follow these steps from the USDA.

1. Clean: Wash hands and kitchen surfaces often with soap and hot water.
2. Separate: Separate raw meats from other types of foods.
3. Cook: Cook meat to the correct temperature.
4. Chill: Refrigerate or freeze all food promptly.

Last Updated: October 28, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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